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Austin Duality: The Search for Innovation at SXSW Interactive
It’s Day 4 at SXSW Interactive in Austin, and I’m exhausted. It’s been three days and three nights of non-stop people, meeting, sessions, and noise. South By can be an assault to the senses and as exhilarating as the first couple of days can be, it starts to grind. I start Day 4 at the Austin Convention Center to take in some sessions. I’m still searching for Innovation at South By, with the brightest spot so far being SX Create, I’m wondering if there’s more. I’ve noticed that when it comes to discovering creativity here that I struggle the most whenever I’m at the heart of it all. The convention center is simply an uninspiring place. As clean and modern a facility as it is, its grey walls, concrete pillars, and retro-brown patterned carpet leaves me disillusioned. It’s made worse by sun-burnt middle-aged men in khakis speaking loudly into their cellphones, clambering around sparse power outlets like clusters of barking seals. It’s adult high school, but with no cool cliques.
After a couple of sessions I find myself in Ballroom D. It’s a cavernous room that houses some of the biggest speakers to appear at South By. I’m in here for the Wi-Fi. If SXSW has done anything right, it’s their achievement in Internet connectivity. No other conference, hotel, Starbucks or any other public place has ever reached this level of Wi-Fi strength and speed. It’s the Holy Grail. I’m assuming the shiny white stations with green blinking lights and antennas placed every 20 feet have something to do with it. As I upload photos at blazing speed, the room starts to fill. The next session is starting. Its another Hollywood talk about creativity, and this time it features Marie-Claire Editor-in-Chief, Anne Fulenwider, interviewing 5 time Emmy award-winning comedic actress, Julia Louis-Dreyfus of HBO’s hit political comedy, VEEP. Julia comes out with her iPhone raised as she says hello to the crowd. She has Meerkat open, the hot app that everyone is talking about at SXSW this year. There’s always that one app. Meerkat live streams video directly to your Twitter feed and Julia leaves a couple quips for the Twitterverse before she sets down the phone to address the room.
The one thing I took away from the talk was how audience feedback can make comedy better. Julia talked about why she preferred acting in multi-camera comedy versus single camera, because it gave a better sense of the jokes and initiates a stronger audience reaction and more laughter. This feeds off the actors, and makes better comedy. The best takes don’t happen in rehearsal. They happen with the energy of an audience when real-time feedback is added to the performance. I think this is an incredible insight for creativity. We sit in boardrooms, and we generate ideas amongst ourselves, without any audience feedback. What we think is good in rehearsal, has never been performed in front of an audience before we decide it’s good. We put millions of dollars behind things that five or eight people liked. I think we need to act things out, to prototype and test, and to do these things in front of an audience. Real-time creativity might help us to get to actual innovation that matters.
I leave the convention center and head to the JW Marriott fifth floor pool for the Digital L.A. party. It’s a suiting venue for the L.A. crowd – graceful, modern and smooth, the poolside vibe is more Beverly Hills than gritty Texan. But it’s quiet up here, the crowd is small and the space open and clear. It’s the eye of the storm. I have an opportunity to catch up with Mark Rigley, an engineer and head of Playground at Fuel, an R&D and innovation lab within the digital agency. Mark is a passionate guy who simply loves technology, especially at the intersection of physical things and the future. What I like about Mark is that when he looks at the world, he reverse-engineers it. From talking about the smart approach to PVC molds in crowd control barriers, to the breadboard that one tinkerer used in his homemade 3D printer, walking around South By with Mark is an eye-opening experience. He sees things I don’t see. When he talks, you can tell he’s excited about SXSW. The people and the ideas and the technology here inspires his thinking, and you can see it in his eyes when he talks about the robotic arm he witnessed earlier in the day and the breadth of technology and ideas he saw from the start-ups on the tradeshow floor. We talk a bit about Innovation and how random connections here can spark new ideas. One thing he said was that Innovation doesn't necessarily happen here during South By, but it happens after. Ideas are taken back and infused into future projects. Chance meetings turn into new start-ups. That person beside you at the bar becomes a great partner, perhaps even that missing piece to the puzzle of your success. The right mix of people who can create real Innovation are here, you just have to meet them.
I head out to Sixth Street, It's time to experience the real Austin, which invariably includes beer, barbecue, and live music. On the way I see beer selfies (Miller Lite), Scottish hip-hop (Scotland pavilion), party PR check-ins (Intel at Moonshine), branded venues (Fast Company Bar & Grill), and start-up street teams (Squirl books). But that's not what I'm here for. That's not where I'll find the real creative people. Instead I find myself in a cowboy dive bar, talking with a filmmaker, a game designer and a creative director about Patagonia, doing the best creative work by staying small, and why a desk doesn't matter. It's small talk, but meaningful talk, amongst creative types who get energized about discussing the finer details of our interests. Soon enough we find ourselves watching a local Austin hero, Eric Tessmer, destroy a stage with his heavy blues three piece that I imagine Zeppelin's John Bonham would appreciate. I'm reminded of the talk on how an audience improves performance, and it feels like for Eric that is a very real thing.
Outside, Sixth Street swirls in debutants and freaks, rockstars and geeks, and every other walk of life. This is why we come to South By. To experience creativity in all its forms, with like-minded people who are from very different places in every sense. What I like about Sixth Street is that it's still filled with Austin locals, and you don't have to go too far past the lanyards and badges to find an Austintonian who wants to tell you their story. I was surprised to find so many teenagers out, and it was interesting talking to them. What do they think about SXSW? Why are they here? What are they doing? It's amazing how many of them are working for the conference. I discovered optimistic youth who want to create, who like what South By stands for, even as they grew up with it. They see South By as an opportunity to join a conversation about making something, to find people to collaborate with, and to follow their dreams.
I'm starting to see it too.
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